Felony disenfranchisement laws have a long history in the United States, but individual state laws vary considerably. Recently the U.S. Attorney General called on states to consider repealing laws that prohibit felons from voting after their release from prison. In this edition of The Moral Is Fresno State Communication Professor Diane Blair explores the topic of felony disenfranchisement and suggests that our own civic virtue and commitment to democracy is what is at stake in the issue.
The right to vote is fundamental to a democracy, but 5.3 million American citizens are currently, and in some cases permanently, excluded from the right of suffrage due to a felony conviction. In 48 states incarcerated persons cannot vote. Thirty-five states prohibit parolees from voting, and in 14 states a felony conviction can lead to a loss of voting rights for life. Even where former prisoners are eligible to vote after they’ve served their sentences, they are often required to pay court fines, probation fees, and interest on debts before their right to vote is restored. Trying to pay off these debts is not easy for someone whose felony status is also used as a basis for discrimination in the job market, housing, and government assistance. Stanford professor and civil rights lawyer, Michelle Alexander argues that released prisoners “enter a hidden underworld of legalized discrimination and permanent social exclusion”. They become “members of a new under-caste.”
Felony disenfranchisement also has a disproportionate impact on certain communities. African American men are disenfranchised at seven times the national average. And the vast majority of convicted felons in the U.S., regardless of race, are people of lower socio-economic status.
Arguments for felony disenfranchisement include that it is a criminal’s rightful punishment, and that the electoral process needs to be protected from morally unsuitable voters. The first argument assumes that convicted criminals are refusing to respect the law and as such they forfeit their right to participate in the creation of such laws. It also assumes that the best way to punish someone for criminal behavior is to deprive them not only of their freedom, but of the rights that freedom offers. The second argument assumes that people who engage in criminally defined behavior are morally suspect—that the motives for their crime are necessarily a reflection of a lack of good moral character.
These arguments are problematic. We don’t ask all voters to take a morality test prior to voting, and not being arrested or convicted of a felony does not ensure one’s morality. Such an argument also assumes that people convicted of a crime can never be rehabilitated and that criminal behavior defines them for life. Disenfranchising Americans who are once again living in their community, working, and raising their families, works against their successful reintegration into society. In addition, denying prisoners and parolees political self-determination only reinforces their alienation from society and the rule of law.
In contrast, ensuring the right to vote for ex-felons and those in prison can provide a rehabilitative function. Studies indicate that allowing prisoners to vote strengthens their social ties and investment in their communities. Voting is also linked to reduced rates of recidivism, which benefits society as a whole. Finally, a healthy democracy requires protecting the rights of all of our citizens, even when they have been convicted of a crime. As such, our own moral and civic virtue is at stake with this issue.
The views expressed on The Moral Is are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Valley Public Radio.